The New CEO

The new CEO: What does it take to run an agency now?

As a new wave of agency chiefs step up, a new set of leadership skills are needed in a post-Covid world

By Creative Salon

It happens every decade or so that there’s a generational shift in agency leadership, a significant changing of the guard. New people rise to the top and fresh ways of doing business replace the old.

It feels like change has never been more necessary, for new and established leaders alike.

So what does it really take to be an excellent agency leader now?

Ete Davies, chief executive Engine Creative

Why do you think there's been such a wholesale change in the people running agencies over the last year or two?

I don’t think we can underestimate the passage of time. Many of our predecessors had been in their roles and with their companies for lengthy periods, so I think part of it is just change that was inevitable. 

That said, some change has almost certainly been triggered by the events of the last 18 months, with the pandemic leading many of us to evaluate our lives holistically and forcing us to hold a mirror up to where we find personal fulfilment and purpose. CEOs haven’t been immune to this. Some may have reached the conclusion that they would like to find fulfilment elsewhere.

It’s also clear now, from various research papers, that organisations with more inclusive and diverse leadership perform better, in almost every measurable criteria. This may have driven some of the changes, too - especially within the communications sector, where representative leadership leads to a more representative organisation which, in turn, leads to more effective and relevant work.

Does being an agency CEO now require a different set of skills?

I imagine that the core skills and traits necessary to run an agency were the same for previous CEOs as they are for today’s newer set. This would include the need for effective communication, problem solving, prioritisation and decision-making, forward-thinking and inventiveness, to name but a few.

However, the cultural and societal changes we’ve experienced both in our personal and working lives over the last twenty years has meant that empathy and emotional intelligence are now absolutely critical when it comes to managing the most important assets we have in our industry – people.

Increasingly, we need to be expert collaborators, not just in ourselves but also in the ability to foster collaboration in our teams and across our businesses.

Perhaps controversially, I also think there is an increased need to be approachable, adaptable and humble, and to act with integrity. Such qualities are increasingly amongst the character traits that separate the old from the new guard of CEO. I also think that having a progressive learning and growth mindset is a key skill or trait needed, now more than ever.

And transparency is demanded today, which of course increases the need for accountability. 

Do you have to have a different set of priorities to your predecessors? What are the biggest challenges you face as a CEO now?

In a relatively mature industry, with lots of competitors, little differentiation, and few barriers to entry, growth is the perennial challenge – especially finding new and unique ways to grow. Today, our challenges - rightly - are also to ensure that growth is responsible. This puts a strong emphasis on:

  • Talent development, progression and retention: Our industry faces competition in all these areas.

  • Ensuring we design, build and maintain representative, inclusive and equitable companies and working environments.

  • Finding the next innovations – by remaining focused on the points where culture, technology and human behaviour meet and intersect.

  • The wellbeing of our people and the positive impact of our work in society.

  • Finding the underserved or unmet needs for our clients, and their customers; and those which create ‘space’ for us in the market.

  • Keeping alignment with all the above, whilst ensuring continuation of the business mission as we scale and become more complex.

What new skill sets will you need to be a successful leader?

Leadership success is very contextual, and being a successful leader is affected by the situation context, culture and need. However, from my personal point of view, I think that, as the pace of innovation continues and the flywheel of ‘technology influencing behaviour’ and ‘behaviour influencing technology’, turns ever faster, the following skills look likely to be essential:

  • Social intelligence and cross-cultural awareness: Awareness of different cultural sensitivities, along with the ability to connect with others of different cultures and identities in an authentic and meaningful way.

  • Computational thinking: The ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning.

  • Cross-discipline literacy: There is a lot more cross-over between different areas of expertise and specialisms today. New leaders need to understand concepts across multiple disciplines.

  • The ability to lead and manage remote and distributed teams: It’s clear that those who were effective at doing this over the last year or so had an advantage. This will be a skill that is increasingly essential as we move into the world of ‘hybrid work’.

Annette King, chief executive Publicis Groupe UK

Does a CEO now need a different set of skills?

CEOs need the same skills but in a full on, no excuses kind of way. CEOs need to set a clear vision, build relationships with clients, look after their people, communicate thoughtfully and well, deal with the highs and lows personally and on behalf of everyone, make big and small decisions every day, set the tone of the culture, own the numbers, love new business, love the work…..The list goes on and isn’t any different from before.

But there are three new territories that CEOs need to deal with now:

1) A higher level of ongoing uncertainty. This is now a constant, not a blip, and CEOs need to be comfortable dealing with that while not becoming complacent about further changes that might happen both with the virus and with how our people react and behave moving forward.

2) Significantly more time spent on thinking about and executing plans for how we work not just what we do. This is a big change. None of us were equipped to know how to lead from home, how to use our usually trusty sixth sense to understand the mood of the business, the industry, the pitch when we couldn’t see anyone in real life, pick up on what’s going on through unplanned conversations both internally and externally, or know what the answers were to keeping our business alive through circumstances that have never happened before. Even though we are hopefully through the worst of it, this is still something we’re dealing with.

3) Dedicating more time to giving our people, en masse and in smaller groups, the opportunity to engage with leadership on the issues that matter to them, and acting on what we hear. One of the few good things to come out of all of this is that this has become the norm, whereas it wasn’t before. Mental health, diversity in all forms, and how people want to physically work are all topics that are now openly discussed and a lot of time and effort has, quite rightly, been spent on doing what needs to be done. This will continue. We were fortunate that we had introduced a flexible working programme and our Headline programme, dedicated to our people’s mental wellbeing, before the pandemic and other organisations now recognise this is essential.

Do you have to have a different set of priorities to your predecessors?

The priorities will stay the same but the way we get there will be different. The priorities will always be happy clients, happy team, great work, new business success, strong financials. How we operate will be different, at least in the short to medium term.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a CEO now?  

The single biggest challenge is working out how to return to the office and what the goalposts are. This is the bit that none of us have done anything like before and we’re going to have to work it out as we go. We’ve developed our Heads Down, Heads Up, Heads Together principles to help navigate this, which have gone down really well. People understand them in relation to the kind of work that they do. However, we’re all waiting for 19th July, for full vaccination rollout, for boosters for some in the Autumn, before we know exactly how it’s going to play out.

How do you think your job will change further in the next five years?

Who knows? The pandemic has taught us that predictions are dangerous. CEOs are going to have to roll with it, whatever happens.

Tammy Einav & Mat Goff, joint CEOs adam&eveDDB

Whilst the key priorities - looking after our people, doing brilliant work for our clients, growing our business - have remained the same, there is greater depth and challenges to each one than perhaps ever before.

The value of a diverse and inclusive workforce is being realised across every part of our business, and our people’s wellbeing and keeping our agency culture alive in the face of the geographical fragmentation of the last 18 months, has never been more important.

There is also far greater complexity in the work that we do for our clients, in part due to the immediate circumstances but more broadly as their marketing needs transform and broaden.

These challenges will remain as we and our clients navigate through the return to the office and a return to growth but, whilst challenging, it is also a privilege to be in a position to encourage and influence so much positive change in the way that we work.

Karen Martin, CEO BBH

Today’s agency CEO is more hands-on than ever before. No longer can a leader step away from it all to carefully craft their vision - you tend to do lots of it in the moment, and with everyone watching.

The CEO has to wear so many hats now. But not all demands on our time are equal. It’s our job to prioritise, and to focus on what we can fix. 

Our people are our only commodity so they demand a large portion of our time, and rightly so. Keeping a workforce engaged and motivated, working out how to get the best out of people at home, investing in their development, D&I, being the best partner possible for our clients, winning new ones, making money, making brilliant work, oh and re-writing the return to work plan for the 567th time. Phew. It’s a lot, and it can be kind of overwhelming. 

The default is to keep running from one job to the next, but it’s important to take a moment to recognise when we do achieve things and also realise that we can't fix everything at once. We also need to celebrate the wins - big and small - and be more generous in supporting others. 

The only thing I am sure of is that change is a guarantee now, and the best leaders will be those who are adaptable, calm, and always open and honest. We’ve never experienced anything like this before, so it’s ok to not know everything. In fact, it can be reassuring for all when you say that you don’t.

Fiona Gordon, UK CEO Ogilvy

Does the CEO role now require a different set of skills?

The coronavirus outbreak has profoundly challenged everyone’s ways of how we live and work. The disruption to our lives means many of the talent across the industry feel uncertain about the path ahead and I think that is why now more than ever the most important skills of a CEO is to help the team, and the clients, gain clarity and show how the future is going to be better. 

They want someone with a positive vision, who listens and then gets things done to move us forward.  And someone who is passionate about what creativity can bring to the world - as one of great lights of the last 18 months has been seeing the power of creativity helping solve problems and bringing much needed joy. 

I have always believed you can be empathetic, human and successful. And I intend to not lose these skills but build on them. I have just started to be reverse mentored by one of our up and coming talents Maddie McCarthy – and I intend to continue this which will point me to new skills that I need to build on.  I want to help our people shine, and help our clients fly.  I’m so excited about the future – and also hugely optimistic. I think it’s a brilliant time to take over as CEO – and feel very lucky to be doing so at Ogilvy,  a company that I love.

Does the CEO role make different demands on the people in the big chair than would have been the case a few years ago?

Yes because the speed of the changes are so fast and so to respond effectively you need to find an agile momentum to keep driving the business and clients businesses forward, even when there is uncertainty around. You need to also be ready to focus on the opportunity.

Do you have to have a different set of priorities to your predecessors?

I think every time requires its own focus - and I really want to make Ogilvy London a powerhouse of creativity for the network. We came second in the Cannes League table this year in the UK and driving creativity in all forms into all aspects of our clients business is essential. Why? – because it will drive their growth. If we grow our clients then we will grow. I am 100% focused on delivering that for our clients from experience, to advertising and PR.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a CEO now?


Our people, our clients and our partners have been through this pandemic and everyone – no matter what level  - is impacted by it. And actually that’s not just us in the UK – it's right across the globe – I hear it from every office across the network. We are a business driven by connections and that's why I'm proud that we're pioneering the hybrid working model – helping people to laugh, create and connect in flexible ways together.  That will feed our souls, it will give us energy, it will deepen our culture and help us emerge stronger. 

How will your job change further in the next five years?

I think technology – and understanding that will be vital. And how we embrace it to create ideas, services and platforms that impact the world.

Larissa Vince, in-coming CEO TBWA/London

Do CEOs now require a different set of skills?

Many of the skills are the same as they always have been - in essence, I see the role of CEO as creating the best possible environment for great work, for talent to shine, and for client partnership. What has probably changed is the way in which all agency CEOs now (I hope) are much more focused on the needs of their talent than may have been the case in the past.

A successful leader now needs to have empathy, empathy, empathy. For your clients and your people.

Does the role make different demands on the people in the big chair than would have been the case a few years ago?

Our industry has always attracted entrepreneurial types, and when you are in a tough market, as we are, there's more need than ever to be innovative and forward thinking - you can't just sit there and wait for briefs to come in. This actually makes the job more interesting.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a CEO now?

Talent remains the biggest challenge. I will always believe that the best way to attract and keep talent is to create the best work, so that's always got to be the focus. But of course, we also need environments which allow people to be the best they can be, which means being flexible and diverse with talent management.

How do you think your job will change further in the next five years?

The nature of the work we make may change, and I expect the skillsets of the talent we have will widen. Hopefully, as an industry we will also regain our confidence in the value of what we do. Otherwise, it won't!


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